e.surv’s analysis of court-ordered repossessions in the first half of 2012, broken down by post code, found there were 1.8 repossessions per 1,000 households in the north, 32% more than the south, which saw 1.4 repossessions per 1,000 households. The research found the gap has widened from a 7% difference in mid-2006 to 32% as of the beginning of August this year. e.surv has used the Humber to the Wash definition for the north-south split.
Richard Sexton, director of e.surv chartered surveyors, explains: “This is more evidence that the recession has hit the north much harder than the south.
“Monthly budgets have been ransacked since the financial crisis, which is making it harder for borrowers to keep up with mortgage repayments. Personal finances have been caught in the grip of increasing energy prices, a sharp drop in wages in real terms, and record low savings rates.
“And the squeeze has been tightening. Although all these problems are on a national scale, they are accentuated in the north. Nationally, real-term salaries are 8% lower than they were in 2006.
“But in the north, particularly in areas like the north-west, salaries have fallen more steeply than the national average – and unemployment is higher – thanks to a weaker private sector, the decline of traditional heavy industries and a dependence on public sector jobs.
“Now this government is culling the public sector at an unprecedented scale and speed, more homeowners in the north are having their homes repossessed because they can’t make ends meet. It’s created a gaping north-south divide in housing repossessions.”
The north-west, the M62 corridor and industrial Yorkshire are the regions where repossessions are highest. The north has had to shoulder a larger burden of the public sector cuts, which has pushed unemployment up well above the national average of 7.8% in some northern areas, particularly inner city areas which have been traditionally dependent on local council employment. As a result, more borrowers in the north have failed to keep up with their mortgage repayment.
Northern towns dominate the list of places with the highest proportion of repossessions. Chester tops the list, with 4.9 per 1,000 households, over three times higher than the UK average of 1.6 per 1,000. Blackpool (2.6) and Bradford (2.5), also in the north, complete the top three. Of the top 20 postcodes where repossessions are highest, 15 are in the north.
Conversely, southern towns almost exclusively populate the list of areas with the lowest proportion of repossessions. Just three northern postcodes appear in the bottom 20 areas for repossessions.
The widening north-south divide in repossessions rates reflects a similarly widening gap between the health of the northern and southern labour markets. Since 2006, the average UK salary has fallen 8% in real terms. In the north the drop has been steeper. In the north-west, which as a region has the highest rate of repossessions, salaries have fallen in real terms by 10.2%.
Bucking the north-south trend are parts of East London and Essex. Despite being affluent areas when judged by national standards, the high population density of both areas means they contain enclaves of low affluence and high unemployment.
Repossessions in these areas are high and push up the rate for the overall area. Romford, Essex, has 2.5 repossessions per 1,000 households – the fourth highest proportion of repossessions in the UK and 44% above the national average – despite its close proximity to wealthy parts of London.
Sexton added: “It’s not a completely consistent north-south divide and there are some anomalies to the trend. Particularly in densely populated urban areas, with bigger variations in rich and poor, repossessions levels can vary dramatically within a confined geographically space. There are pockets of very poor borrowers living near very affluent areas, especially in areas like Greater London.”
On a national basis, repossessions in the first half of this year fell 16% on an annual basis. The average number of repossessions per 1,000 households fell from 1.9 in the first half of 2011 to 1.6 in the equivalent period of this year. This was despite cases of serious mortgage arrears rising to their highest since the year 2000 .
Sexton said: “Although there is a big disparity between repossessions rates in the north and south, the good news is that nationally repossessions are falling. Banks are doing the best they can to keep people in their homes. As a proportion of overall mortgages, there are more borrowers in serious long-term arrears than at any point in history, yet repossessions levels are much lower than they were in mid-2008 when we entered the crux of the credit crunch. The only explanation is banks are being more tolerant of borrowers in arrears than ever before. Why? Well, some major lenders we are now part government owned, so they may feel they have a duty to keep as many people in their homes as possible, but more generally the lending community wants to be seen to be acting responsibly and with increased sensitivity to the plight of struggling borrowers. If they can keep people in a home, they will try their best to do so.”
Despite a sharp increase in the number of mortgages in arrears since mid-2008 – there are currently 66,700 more compared to the first half of 2008 – repossessions have fallen 61% over the same period.
The number of mortgages in serious arrears (10% or more of the balance) has increased by 47% since the first half of 2008 to 28,600 – the highest since 2000, and the highest ever as a proportion of the total number of outstanding mortgages. While this only accounts for a quarter of a per cent of all outstanding mortgages, it still means lenders are exposed to £275 billion of mortgages in serious long-term arrears .
Sexton added: “The apparent contradiction between a fall in repossessions and an increase in arrears can’t last forever. Lenders should be commended for their determination to keep people in their homes, but there is a bigger picture to think about. Presumably they are taking a view that the economy will improve in the long-term and put more borrowers back into the black, so they are willing to go on supporting struggling borrowers. But if the Government ultimately fails to concoct a recipe for economic growth, we could well see repossessions rise further down the line, the clock is ticking in both regards.”